Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) as a Stock Market Alternative

Real estate investment trusts (REITs) are a way for you to invest in commercial real estate property without actually buying and managing those properties yourself.

What is a REIT?

A Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) is a company that owns, operates, or finances income-generating real estate across a range of property sectors. REITs were created to provide a way for individual investors to invest in large-scale, income-producing real estate without having to buy, manage, or finance properties directly.

REITs can invest in various types of real estate, including residential and commercial properties, hotels, healthcare facilities, and infrastructure. They can take different forms, such as equity REITs, mortgage REITs, and hybrid REITs. Equity REITs own and operate income-producing real estate, while mortgage REITs invest in real estate mortgages and receive income from the interest on these loans.

Investors can buy shares of publicly traded REITs on stock exchanges, similar to buying shares of other publicly traded companies. This provides a way for individuals to gain exposure to real estate assets and potentially receive dividends from the income generated by the properties owned by the REIT.

How do REITs work?

Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) work by allowing investors to pool their capital to invest in a diversified portfolio of income-generating real estate assets. Here’s a basic overview of how REITs work:

Property Acquisition:

REITs acquire and own a variety of real estate properties, which can include residential and commercial properties (e.g., apartment buildings, shopping centers, office buildings), hotels, healthcare facilities, and more. The process of property acquisition for Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) involves the identification, purchase, and ownership of a diverse range of real estate assets. Here’s a more detailed explanation of this aspect:

  1. Identification of Properties:
    • REITs, through their management teams, identify potential real estate properties for acquisition. This involves thorough market research, analysis of economic trends, and evaluation of specific properties that align with the REIT’s investment strategy.
  2. Due Diligence:
    • Before acquiring a property, REITs conduct due diligence to assess the property’s condition, potential for income generation, and any associated risks. This process involves financial analysis, inspections, and legal reviews to ensure that the investment aligns with the REIT’s objectives.
  3. Financing:
    • Once a property is identified and due diligence is completed, the REIT must secure financing for the acquisition. This can involve a combination of debt and equity financing. Equity financing may come from the sale of shares to investors, while debt financing involves taking out loans.
  4. Ownership Structure:
    • After the acquisition is complete, the REIT holds ownership of the property. The ownership structure can vary depending on the type of REIT. For example, in the case of an equity REIT, the REIT directly owns and manages income-producing properties. In the case of a mortgage REIT, the REIT might own or finance real estate mortgages rather than physical properties.
  5. Diversification:
    • REITs aim to build diversified portfolios to mitigate risk. This diversification can be achieved by acquiring properties in different sectors such as residential, commercial, industrial, or healthcare. It can also involve investing in properties across different geographical locations.
  6. Active Management:
    • REITs actively manage their properties to optimize income and property value. This management may involve setting rental rates, maintaining and upgrading properties, negotiating leases with tenants, and adapting to changes in the real estate market.
  7. Adaptation to Market Conditions:
    • Successful REITs continuously adapt their property portfolios based on market conditions. This might involve buying new properties, selling existing ones, or making strategic changes to the portfolio to maximize returns in response to changes in the real estate market or economic conditions.

Income Generation:

The primary source of income for a REIT comes from the rental income generated by the properties it owns. Tenants, whether individuals or businesses, pay rent to the REIT.

Let’s delve into the details of how income generation works for a Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT), with a focus on rental income:

1. Rental Income as the Primary Source:

  • The primary revenue stream for a REIT is derived from the rental income generated by the real estate properties it owns. This income is earned through leasing out spaces within these properties to tenants.

2. Tenant Agreements:

  • REITs enter into lease agreements with tenants, who can be individuals or businesses. These agreements outline the terms and conditions of the lease, including the rental amount, lease duration, responsibilities of both parties, and any specific provisions related to the property.

3. Stable and Predictable Cash Flow:

  • Rental income provides a stable and predictable cash flow for the REIT. Lease agreements often involve fixed rental amounts or periodic adjustments, contributing to the stability of the income stream.

4. Commercial and Residential Tenants:

  • Depending on the type of properties in its portfolio, a REIT may lease space to commercial tenants (e.g., businesses, retailers, office occupants) or residential tenants (e.g., individuals or families renting apartments or homes).

5. Property Management:

  • Effective property management is crucial for optimizing rental income. This involves tasks such as setting competitive rental rates, ensuring properties are well-maintained, addressing tenant needs, and managing lease renewals or new leases.

6. Diversification of Tenant Base:

  • REITs often aim to diversify their tenant base to reduce risk. Having a mix of tenants from different industries or demographics can help mitigate the impact of economic downturns or industry-specific challenges.

7. Long-Term Leases and Stability:

  • Many lease agreements are structured as long-term contracts, providing stability to the REIT’s income. Longer leases contribute to a consistent revenue stream, as tenants commit to occupying the space for an extended period.

8. Adjustment for Market Conditions:

  • REITs may periodically review and adjust rental rates based on market conditions. Factors such as changes in demand for real estate, economic trends, and the competitive landscape can influence the ability to increase or maintain rental income.

9. Lease Structuring:

  • Leases can be structured in various ways, including triple-net leases where tenants bear additional costs such as property taxes, insurance, and maintenance. The structure of leases can impact the net income retained by the REIT.

10. Tenant Relationship Management:

  • Maintaining positive relationships with tenants is crucial. Responsive property management, addressing concerns promptly, and providing desirable amenities contribute to tenant satisfaction and can lead to lease renewals.

11. Geographic Considerations:

  • The geographic location of properties can influence rental income. Properties in high-demand areas or regions experiencing economic growth may command higher rental rates, positively impacting the REIT’s overall income.

Dividend Distribution:

Legal Requirement:

  • REITs are legally obligated to distribute a significant portion of their taxable income to shareholders. This is typically in the form of dividends, and the distribution requirement is usually at least 90% of taxable income.

    Other than this, REITs are required to meet certain standards set by the IRS, including that they:

    • Invest at least 75% of total assets in real estate or cash.

    • Receive at least 75% of gross income from real estate, such as real property rents, interest on mortgages financing the real property or from sales of real estate.

    • Have a minimum of 100 shareholders after the first year of existence.

    • Have no more than 50% of shares held by five or fewer individuals during the last half of the taxable year.

Attractiveness to Investors:

  • The mandatory dividend distribution makes REITs appealing to income-focused investors who seek regular and consistent income streams from their investments.

Tax Implications:

  • Dividend income from REITs is taxed at the individual investor’s income tax rate. This can be advantageous for investors in certain tax brackets.


Risk Mitigation:

  • Investing in shares of a REIT provides investors with exposure to a diversified portfolio of real estate assets. This diversification helps spread risk, as the performance of individual properties may vary.

Access to Various Sectors:

  • REITs often invest in different real estate sectors, allowing investors to participate in residential, commercial, industrial, and other types of properties through a single investment vehicle.


Ease of Trading:

  • Unlike owning physical real estate, which can be relatively illiquid, shares of publicly traded REITs can be bought and sold on stock exchanges. This provides investors with liquidity and the ability to easily enter or exit their positions.

Market Pricing:

  • The liquidity of publicly traded REITs also means that their share prices are determined by market forces, reflecting the perceived value of the underlying real estate assets.

Tax Advantages:

Corporate Tax Exemption:

  • REITs are generally exempt from federal income tax at the corporate level if they meet specific requirements, such as distributing at least 90% of their taxable income to shareholders.

Pass-Through Structure:

  • The tax structure of REITs allows them to pass income directly to shareholders, who then report the income on their individual tax returns. This pass-through structure can result in tax advantages for investors.

Investor Taxation:

  • Investors in REITs are typically taxed at their individual income tax rates on the dividends received from the REIT, which may be more favorable than corporate tax rates.

Types of REITs:

There are different types of REITs, including equity REITs, mortgage REITs, and hybrid REITs. Let’s explore the different types of Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) and understand their unique characteristics:

REIT types by investment holdings

1. Equity REITs:

  • Ownership and Operation:
    • Equity REITs primarily focus on owning and operating income-producing real estate properties. These properties can span various sectors, including residential, commercial, retail, industrial, and healthcare.
    • Examples of properties owned by equity REITs include apartment buildings, shopping centers, office buildings, hotels, and warehouses.
  • Income Generation:
    • The primary source of income for equity REITs is derived from the rental income generated by the properties they own. Tenants pay rent, and this rental income is distributed to shareholders in the form of dividends.
  • Capital Appreciation:
    • In addition to rental income, equity REITs may also benefit from capital appreciation, which occurs when the value of the underlying real estate properties increases over time.

2. Mortgage REITs:

  • Investment in Mortgages:
    • Mortgage REITs, also known as mREITs, do not own physical real estate. Instead, they invest in real estate mortgages or mortgage-backed securities. These mortgages are loans provided to real estate owners or developers.
  • Income Generation:
    • The primary source of income for mortgage REITs comes from the interest payments on the mortgages they hold. Mortgage REITs earn income by charging interest on the loans they provide to property owners.
  • Interest Rate Sensitivity:
    • Mortgage REITs are often sensitive to changes in interest rates. Movements in interest rates can impact the cost of borrowing for the REIT and the income earned from the mortgage investments.
  • Risk Factors:
    • Mortgage REITs may be exposed to credit risk, interest rate risk, and prepayment risk. Prepayment risk arises when borrowers pay off their mortgages earlier than expected, potentially affecting the expected income for the REIT.

3. Hybrid REITs:

  • Combination of Equity and Mortgage Components:
    • Hybrid REITs combine elements of both equity and mortgage REITs. This means they may own and operate real estate properties while also investing in real estate mortgages or mortgage-backed securities.
  • Diversification and Risk Management:
    • The hybrid structure allows for diversification across different income streams. This can help manage risk by providing exposure to both the potential capital appreciation of real estate properties and the interest income from mortgages.
  • Flexibility:
    • Hybrid REITs have the flexibility to adapt their investment strategies based on market conditions. They can adjust the balance between equity and mortgage investments to optimize returns.
  • Income Sources:
    • Hybrid REITs generate income from both rental income, as with equity REITs, and interest income from mortgage investments.

REIT types by trading status

Publicly Traded REITs:

  1. Listing on Stock Exchanges:
    • Publicly traded REITs have their shares listed on stock exchanges, such as the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) or NASDAQ. Investors can buy and sell these shares on the open market through brokerage accounts.
  2. Liquidity:
    • Publicly traded REITs offer high liquidity because their shares are actively traded on stock exchanges. Investors can enter or exit their positions easily by buying or selling shares at market prices.
  3. Market-Driven Valuation:
    • The valuation of publicly traded REITs is influenced by market forces, including supply and demand dynamics. The share prices fluctuate throughout the trading day based on investor perceptions, economic conditions, and changes in the real estate market.
  4. Transparency:
    • Publicly traded REITs are subject to rigorous regulatory and reporting requirements. They must file regular financial reports with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) and provide disclosures to shareholders. This transparency enhances investor confidence.
  5. Access to a Diverse Investor Base:
    • Publicly traded REITs can attract a broad range of investors, including individual investors, institutional investors, and mutual funds. This diversity in the investor base can contribute to increased liquidity and a more efficient market.

Non-Traded REITs:

  1. Limited Liquidity:
    • Non-traded REITs do not have their shares listed on public stock exchanges. Instead, they are typically sold through broker-dealers in the primary market. As a result, investors in non-traded REITs may experience limited liquidity, and it can be challenging to sell their shares.
  2. Sales through Broker-Dealers:
    • Non-traded REIT shares are often sold through broker-dealers or financial advisors. The initial purchase is made in the primary market, typically during an offering period. After the offering period ends, investors may have limited options to sell their shares.
  3. Valuation Challenges:
    • Non-traded REITs often face valuation challenges because their shares are not regularly traded on an open market. Valuing these shares can be complex, and investors may need to rely on appraisals or estimates provided by the REIT’s management.
  4. Distribution of Income:
    • Non-traded REITs may distribute income to investors, but these distributions can include a combination of rental income, return of capital, and financing proceeds. The lack of a transparent market price can make it challenging for investors to assess the true yield.
  5. Limited Price Discovery:
    • The absence of a readily available market price for non-traded REIT shares means that investors may have limited visibility into the current market value of their investment. This lack of price discovery contrasts with the real-time pricing of publicly traded REITs.
  6. Holding Period Requirements:
    • Non-traded REITs often have holding period requirements, during which investors are discouraged or restricted from selling their shares. This illiquidity can impact an investor’s ability to access funds tied up in the investment.

Considerations for Investors:

  • Risk and Return Tradeoff:
    • Publicly traded REITs and non-traded REITs present different risk-return profiles. Non-traded REITs may offer potentially higher yields but come with reduced liquidity and valuation challenges.
  • Investment Horizon:
    • Investors should consider their investment horizon and liquidity needs. Publicly traded REITs provide more immediate liquidity, while non-traded REITs may be suitable for those with a longer-term investment horizon.

Types of Real Estate Stocks

As with any stock market sector, real estate stocks can be divided into sub-sectors based on their businesses. The real estate sector is typically segmented into the following sub-sectors:

  • Residential. Residential real estate stocks are companies focused on owning and leasing properties where tenants live, including apartments, condos and executive housing.
  • Commercial. Commercial real estate stocks primarily own, operate or develop office or retail space for housing various types of businesses.
  • Healthcare. Healthcare real estate stocks buy, build or manage healthcare-related facilities including senior housing, assisted living facilities and post-acute care centers.
  • Specialty. In addition to REITs that invest in core property types like residential and commercial, there are also some specialty stocks that invest in things like entertainment spaces (such as arenas) and other venues.

Best Real Estate Stocks of November 2023

Here are some of the top performing publicly listed REITs:

SymbolCompanyMarket Cap.Dividend Yield10 Year Avg. Ann. Return
PLDPrologis Inc.$96 billion3.3%13.3%
AMTAmerican Tower Corp.$87 billion3.5%11.3%
EQIXEquinix Inc.$71 billion2.3%19.7%
WELLWelltower Inc.$47 billion2.8%8.1%
PSAPublic Storage$44 billion4.8%8.2%
CCICrown Castle International Corp.$42 billion6.4%6.2%
DLRDigital Realty Trust, Inc.$39 billion3.8%14.9%
SPGSimon Property Group, Inc.$38 billion6.5%2.5%
ORealty Income Corporation$36 billion6.1%7.2%
CSGPCoStar Group, Inc.$31 billionn/a15.9%

*All data is sourced from Forbes Advisor, current as of November 6, 2023.

Best Real Estate Mutual Funds of November 2023

Rather than purchase individual REITs, you can also invest in REIT mutual funds to get instant diversification at an affordable price. Here are some top performing property-focused mutual funds the past year:

SymbolCompanyExpense RatioDividend Yield10 Year Avg. Ann. Return
VGSLXVanguard Real Estate Index Fund Investor Shares0.12%4.58%5.55%
TCREXTIAA-CREF Real Estate Securities Fund0.77%2.42%6.51%
CSZIXCohen & Steers Real Estate Securities Z0.75%3.41%8.02%
RRREXDWS RREEF Real Estate Securities S0.75%1.77%6.17%
IVRSXVY CBRE Real Estate S0.93%2.54%5.72%
CSRSXCohen & Steers Realty Shares L0.88%3.38%7.06%
BRIFXBaron Real Estate Income Retail1.05%1.93%7.36%
MNRWXManning & Napier Real Estate W0.10%2.63%4.78%
PFRSXPrincipal Real Estate Securities Fund R-60.80%2.91%6.40%
FRESXFidelity Real Estate Investment Port0.71%1.83%5.70%

*All data sourced from Forbes Advisor, current as of Sept. 25, 2023, unless noted otherwise. Some portfolio composition per each fund’s disclosure.

Pros of investing in REIT stocks

Investing in Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) stocks can offer several advantages to investors. Here are some of the key pros of investing in REIT stocks, especially those that are publicly traded:

Liquidity: Unlike physical real estate, which can be relatively illiquid, shares of publicly traded REITs can be bought and sold on stock exchanges. This liquidity provides investors with the flexibility to enter or exit their positions in REIT stocks relatively easily, enhancing portfolio liquidity.

Passive Real Estate Exposure: Investing in REIT stocks allows individuals to gain exposure to the real estate market without the need to directly own and manage physical properties. This passive exposure enables investors to participate in real estate’s potential for income and appreciation without the responsibilities of property ownership.

Stable Income: REITs are required by law to distribute a significant portion of their income to shareholders in the form of dividends. This consistent distribution of income can provide investors with a stable and reliable source of cash flow, making REITs attractive to income-focused investors.

Potential for Capital Appreciation: In addition to dividends, REIT stocks have the potential for capital appreciation if the value of the underlying real estate properties increases. Investors may benefit from both regular income and the potential for long-term capital gains as the value of the real estate assets appreciates.

Dividend Tax Efficiency: Dividends received from REITs are often taxed at the individual investor’s income tax rate, which may be more favorable than traditional corporate tax rates. This tax efficiency can be attractive to investors seeking tax-advantaged income.

Lower volatility: REITs tend to be less volatile than traditional stocks, in part because of their larger dividends. REITs can act as a hedge against the stomach-churning ups and downs of other asset classes. However, no investment is immune to volatility.

Cons of investing in REIT stocks

While investing in Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) stocks offers various advantages, it’s important to consider potential drawbacks or cons as well. Here are some of the cons associated with investing in REIT stocks:

Sensitivity to Interest Rates: REITs can be sensitive to changes in interest rates. When interest rates rise, the cost of borrowing for REITs may increase, potentially impacting their profitability and share prices. Higher interest rates can lead to lower property valuations and higher financing costs for REITs, which may negatively affect their performance.

Limited Control for Shareholders: Shareholders in REITs have limited control over the day-to-day operations and strategic decisions of the company. Investors may not have direct influence on management decisions, property acquisitions, or other operational aspects of the REIT, limiting their ability to shape the direction of their investment.

Dilution of Ownership: To raise capital for new acquisitions or projects, REITs may issue new shares, potentially diluting the ownership stake of existing shareholders. Existing shareholders may see a reduction in their proportional ownership of the REIT, and this dilution could impact the value of their holdings.

Economic Sensitivity: REITs may be sensitive to broader economic conditions, such as recessions or economic downturns. Economic challenges can impact tenant occupancy rates, rental income, and property values, leading to reduced returns for REIT investors.

Frequently asked questions (FAQs)

What Types of Properties do REITs Own?

REITs can own a variety of properties, including residential (apartments, single-family homes), commercial (office buildings, shopping centers), retail (malls, outlets), industrial (warehouses, distribution centers), and healthcare (hospitals, medical offices).

How Can I Invest in REITs?

Investors can invest in REITs through buying shares on stock exchanges like any other publicly traded company. REITs can also be part of investment portfolios through mutual funds, exchange-traded funds (ETFs), or real estate-focused investment platforms.

What are the Tax Implications of Investing in REITs?

REITs are structured as pass-through entities, meaning they are not taxed at the corporate level. Instead, income is passed through to shareholders, who are taxed at their individual income tax rates. Dividend income from REITs may receive special tax treatment.

What is the Difference Between Equity REITs and Mortgage REITs?

Equity REITs primarily own and operate real estate properties, earning income through rentals. Mortgage REITs invest in real estate mortgages, earning income from interest payments on loans.

Are REIT Dividends Taxable?

Yes, dividends from REITs are generally taxable. However, a portion of the dividends may be considered a return of capital, which can have different tax implications. Investors should consult with tax professionals for specific advice.

What Factors Should I Consider Before Investing in a REIT?

Investors should consider factors such as the type of properties in the REIT’s portfolio, management quality, historical performance, dividend yield, and the economic conditions in the regions where the properties are located.

Do REITs Provide Regular Income?

Yes, one of the key attractions of REITs is their ability to provide regular income to investors through the distribution of dividends. REITs are required by law to distribute a significant portion of their income to shareholders.

Are REITs Good Investments?

Investing in REITs is a great way to diversify your portfolio outside of traditional stocks and bonds and can be attractive for their strong dividends and long-term capital appreciation.

Can You Lose Money on a REIT?

As with any investment, there is always a risk of loss. Publicly traded REITs have the particular risk of losing value as interest rates rise, which typically sends investment capital into bonds.

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